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Defense: Low minimum wage contributes to fraud

NASHUA – Watching her family struggle to make ends meet during a particularly difficult five-year period, Larissa Baker twice turned to what she likely felt was her last resort: welfare fraud.

Still, her family, unable to pay the rent, was evicted from their apartment, sending the couple and their three children on a three-month stint of homelessness that forced them to alternate between friends’ couches and a tiny motel room.

While Baker knew committing welfare fraud is wrong, public defender Sarah Amorin, said at Baker’s plea and sentencing hearing Monday, “she’s here today to take responsibility for her behavior.

“Larissa wants to pay that money back,” Amorin added, referring to the roughly $27,200 in medical and food stamp benefits she collected illegally between November 2015 and June 2017.

“Your honor, this is not a case of criminal thinking,” Amorin said, addressing Judge Charles Temple. “It’s a case of survival thinking. Larissa made a bad decision to help her family survive.”

Although Monday’s guilty plea makes the second time Baker has been convicted of welfare fraud, Temple opted to sentence her to suspended prison time, giving Baker the opportunity to pay back the funds and keep her family intact.

Assistant County Attorney Lisa Drescher recommended that Baker receive some prison time, given that “this was a conscious decision on the defendant’s part to commit (welfare) fraud … $27,000 is a lot of money,” Drescher told the court.

She asked Temple to sentence Baker to at term of two to four years in State Prison, with six months of the minimum suspended for 10 years.

In recommending the sentence, Drescher cited Baker’s previous welfare fraud conviction, which stemmed from her “failure to report her husband’s income” to the Department of Health and Human Services from August 2014 to July 2016.

Baker in that case pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor-level offense in exchange for a suspended jail sentence, and was ordered to pay $7,000 restitution.

In neither case, Amorin said Monday, did Baker and her family use the ill-gotten funds “to invest in luxury.” Their two cars were quite old – they have just one now – and haven’t taken a vacation in years, Amorin said.

Even with both Baker and her husband working, they “can barely afford their current $1,200-per-month apartment,” which is heated by electricity – forcing them to work out an agreement with Eversource Energy “to try and get caught up and keep the lights on.”

In the context of the Bakers’ daily struggles to keep a roof over their heads and keep up with expenses, Amorin said “it bears mentioning that New Hampshire has the lowest minimum wage in New England.”

Larissa Baker’s two jobs, both at local fast-food restaurants, pay around $10.30 per hour, Amorin said, adding that in a way, she is “lucky to make above” New Hampshire’s $7.25 minimum wage – even though her pay, combined with her husband’s $13.75 per hour wage at a Massachusetts supermarket, doesn’t always cover the bills.

Baker was emotional throughout the hearing, as were her husband and one of their children, who sat in the back row behind Baker.

She spoke briefly, and emotionally, telling the court she “was just trying to take care of my family … it was wrong, I know … I’m just so sorry.”

Temple ultimately sentenced Baker to a sentence of two to four years in prison, all suspended for 10 years on the condition of good behavior.

Baker is also ordered to pay roughly $27,200 in restitution to the DHHS, serve two years probation and participate in any treatment or educational programs as recommended by probation officials.

Temple told Baker he had to decide whether “this is the time” she should be sentenced to prison, ultimately concluding that “I don’t think it is … but it’s getting close.”

He believed Baker showed “true remorse,” and regrets “what you did, and the impact on your family.”

Dean Shalhoup may be reached at 594-1256, or at dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.

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